"Let me tell you about myself..."

A Brief History of Risley Musical Theatre Company
(Formerly Risley Operatic Group)

In February 1942 Vi Finlay, a local teacher, decided to set up a formal singing class at Risley Avenue Youth Centre in Tottenham to help keep young people occupied and off the blacked out streets of wartime North London. The idea behind the class was to eventually stage a production.

The first show was "Maritana", an opera by Vincent Wallace and the cast consisted entirely of girls as most of the young men were away in the forces. The show was presented in Rowland Hill School Hall and Vi called her company "The Risley Youth Centre Operatic Group". An advert for the opera stated "Tickets will be 1/- and 1/3 each and the proceeds, if any, will go to the British Red Cross Prisoner Of War Fund".

"Maritana" was a great success and so, under the auspices of Tottenham Education Committee, Risley Operatic Group was formed as an evening class. Adverts went out for male actors for Risley's second production "A Slave In Araby" and soon the society had applications from members of old pre-war societies (which had ceased to function during the war), young boys and men who were not in the forces because they were medically unfit.

For the first fifteen years of it's existence Risley's shows were staged at Rowland Hill School, built in the 1930's the school's facilities were ideal for the fledgling society, offering a medium-sized stage, an auditorium seating approximately 200 people, numerous classrooms which could be adapted as dressing rooms and a lawn for outdoor rehearsals (weather permitting!)

As the men returned from the forces so the company became stronger and the society consistently played to full houses. Finances were obviously healthy in those early days as the society was able to finance their shows, donate money to various good causes such as the "Missions To Seamen", "Workers Music Association Ltd " and the "British Red Cross Prisoner Of War Fund" and maintain a cot in the Prince Of Wales Hospital (until the National Health Service came in and Risley's efforts were no longer required).

When the evening class system was restructured in 1957 Risley decided to break away from the Education Committee and become an independent group - which it still is to this day. This decision was a shock to the financial resources as all hall hire expenses, payments for producers, costumes, scenery, etc etc had to be paid for by the group. To help fund these extra expenses it was decided to invite regular supporters to become patrons at a cost of two guineas per year.

This decision to go "private" also necessitated a change of venue for shows and rehearsals. The group bid farewell to Rowland Hill School in spring 1957 with the Kalman operetta "The Gipsy Princess". St. John's Church Hall in Bourne Hill, Palmers Green now became the group's base and almost fifty years later Risley still use St. John's twice a week for rehearsals. From 1957 until 1970 Risley also used St. John's as their venue for shows. Opening with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Patience" in December 1957 and bowing out in spring 1970 with another G & S favourite "The Pirates of Penzance".

The routine in the run-up to a show was very different from the way it is organised today. Because of regular hall bookings Risley could not have a full week of performances on their "show week". Instead, the dress rehearsal was held on the Saturday preceding the opening night on the Tuesday, after which costumes and props had to be taken home before the actual opening performance!

In 1970 Risley had the opportunity to stage their shows in a proper theatre when the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green opened its doors to amateur groups. Cramped dressing rooms and virtually no wing space on the side of the stage were more than compensated for by the true theatrical atmosphere of the venue when Risley staged Lehar's "The Count of Luxembourg" as their first show in the new venue in October 1970.

The Intimate Theatre belonged to St. Monica's Church next door and first opened in 1935 under the control of John Clements but due to rising costs and many other problems had closed as a full time professional venue in 1969.

Risley, along with other music and drama societies, continued to use the Intimate as their regular venue, staging two full scale musical productions a year, until 1987 when the management committee of St. Monica's Church decided that they needed to expand their church activities and wished to use the building as a community centre.

Risley's last production at the Intimate was Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" in October 1987.

Risley found a temporary home at Gladys Child Theatre in Southgate College for their 1988 presentation of Offenbach's "La Belle Helene" and then staged two very successful concerts at St. John's Hall whilst waiting for the promised new civic theatre - Millfield - to be opened.

Millfield Theatre opened its doors to the public in December 1988 and Risley first appeared there in a concert "Melody All The Way" in March 1989, reappearing in May in Noel Coward's "Bitter Sweet". Since then it has been the regular venue for Risley's twice yearly productions.

One of the great strengths, perhaps the greatest strength, of Risley is the friendliness and camaraderie of the company, the continuity of membership and devotion to the society. The group has been likened to an extended family and it is not unusual for different generations of the same family to be connected with the society. The current president of Risley, Edna Buckmaster, was a participant in the very first show "Maritana" and over the years has seen her husband, two daughters, son-in-law and four grandchildren take part in the group's musical productions.

Finances are not as healthy these days as in the late 1940s and the need to sell tickets to achieve "full houses" for the run of each show is vital if the group is to remain solvent. Theatre costs, musicians fees, performing rights, publicity, costumes and scenery hire all seem to cost more every year yet there is obviously a limit on ticket prices if good audiences are to be maintained.

In December 2000, Risley Operatic Group changed its name to Risley Musical Theatre Company to reflect the company's change of focus for a new generation of audience members.

Risley remains optimistic that it will continue to entertain audiences with professional style performances and is already looking forward to the centenary in 2042.

My Lady Jennifer, 1943

Slave In Araby 1943

After Arcadians 1956

Vi Finlay 1950

Patience 1957

St John's Hall

Gipsy Princess 1957

Intimate Theatre

The Count of Luxembourg 1970

Paul Connor & Irene Gudgeon
Kiss Me Kate 1987

La Belle Helene 1988

Our President, Edna Buckmaster, in 1990 with husband Ron, son-in-law John Bement, daughter Lesley and grandson Matthew.

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